by Chaya Levine
My sister and I have been sisters for as long as I can remember. She might be able to remember not being a sister since she wasn't one for the first seven years of her life. But me, I just can't help being a baby sister. I was born that way.
My sister and I were classic. Classic opposites, that is. I liked to read and later to write or listen to music. I was not crazy about socializing, Shabbos groups or birthday parties. My sister was a socialite. She liked our room to be spotless, with a few important, strategically placed knickknacks. I never even made my bed because I was too busy making my doll house out of her old shoe boxes. She finally found a way to arrange the furniture so that my doll house was hidden from her teenage friends. I enjoyed climbing under the furniture to get to my private haven, never suspecting that she had anything but my best interests in mind.
As I got older I got a bit wiser. My sister would give me a quarter of her hard-earned babysitting money while her friends were over. I thoroughly enjoyed the ice cream that I ate while I stayed out of her way.
Of course there were times when our differences were left behind for a strong common front. I could always be counted on to back up any excuse my sister made as to why we were late for dinner (especially if the real reason was that we stopped at the candy store). The best time my sister found to teach me word games was when we were supposed to be asleep at night. Teachers who did not give us the right grades were certainly wrong. Anyone who said or did anything against my sister could not expect to win my favor and my sister felt this way about me.
My sister's favorite pastime for as long as I can remember has been shopping. Whenever my mother sent her out with me in town I knew I could count on somehow landing up in the May Company department store. It seemed as if one couldn't get to anywhere in town without walking through that store on the way. I was content with riding the escalators for hours while she checked out the latest fashions and accessories, as long as we didn't need to buy anything for me. I did not even mind hearing about all the latest fashions on the way home, as long as I was an innocent bystander. But as hashgachah would have it, my mother decided that it was a great idea to put my sister in charge of taking me shopping. This freed my mother from a chore she disliked while satisfying my sister's desire to shop.
So, I spent a large part of my childhood following and observing my sister as she developed and honed her skill as a shopper. I don't know how well I did in terms of getting clothes. But I had the honor of accompanying the expert and learning the tricks of the trade.
My sister could tell from the storefront whether it was the right type of store and what was the style of the clothes in it. She could tell the difference between a saleslady who sold on commission and the manager or owner of the store. She knew when it paid to buy an expensive original or go for the bargain seconds. She knew which items would be worth waiting for to go on sale and which would be sold out. She even knew when it would still be marked down again. She was the one to find the one $149.99 tag marked $14.99 by mistake and could insist on getting it at that price without making a scene. Shop owners and salespeople recognized her expertise and dealt with her with respect.
Not only did she excel in staking out procedures but she also had hundreds of convincing arguments backing her cause. I can still remember her persuading my father that a three-piece suit reduced from $75 to $50 (a lot of money in those days) was a bargain. After all, it was at least two outfits, so really it was only $25. In addition the quality was superior to a cheaper garment. This last argument certainly softened my father's European heart. A beli neder promise not to buy anything else for the rest of the seasonor at least one monthand she'd won.
When she was eighteen she went to New York to go to seminary in Boro Park, took college credits and worked. But the truth was she'd hit the big-time shopping and was ready for it. Whether it was the Lower East Side, a Boro Park basement or a Fifth Avenue boutique, she was in her element and she could get the right deal. By the time she was twenty she had enough linens, dishes, pots, robes and tablecloths to land a great shidduch. Besides, then she could shop for her husband. Appliances, furniture, wallpaper and curtains were new vistas to be explored. The children's clothing, toys and strollers were also to be.
As for me, I dreaded the sight of a shopping mall. When I think of Fifth Avenue I think of museums, the Lower East Side has the best art supply store, and Boro Park's Kosher Delight can't be beat. But shopping skill? I can count on finding the item I just bought for at least 10% cheaper in the next store. Salesladies ignore me or politely smile in pity.
So it is that I am grateful that my sister has kept her job as my official clothes shopper through the years. She is so efficient that my children think it's the only way to get clothes. When I actually went into a store to buy them a few pairs of tights they were confused.
But with all good things there is always an odd side. For instance, I live in the Middle East and my sister lives in the Midwest. There are no returns or exchanges. If it doesn't fit I adjust it or sell it. It's hard to remember exactly what one has or needs long distance; sometimes I wind up with three navy blue skirts and no shirt to match.
In addition, my sister is five feet tall, wears size 2 and likes brightly colored, fashionable clothes and makeup which suit her dark hair and complexion. She looks like a lady in a snood and exotic in a tichel. I am 5'3" with the build of a football player, especially if I'm standing next to her. Black is the best color to suit my fair hair and complexion and to hide my waistline. I look like a cleaning lady in a snood, a hippie in a tichel. An outfit that looks stunning on her and is a real bargain is bound to make me look like a girl trying to dress up in her mommy's clothes. Through the years she has learned what styles look good on me and what my tastes are. But being a big sister, she can't help sometimes trying to make me over, getting me to be more stylish.
Last week my niece came back from her first trip to America laden with new clothes. Besides clothes, my sister had sent me a special giftShabbos lipstick. My niece didn't know why it was called Shabbos lipstick or what to do with it.
I should have been forewarned by the name "Fresh Expressions." And the aqua blue color would certainly have scared me away from the makeup counter. But you see, I have always been a baby sister. Someone who looks up to, loves, admires and trusts her wiser, older sister. Especially when it comes to shopping. So curiously I put it on.
I watched it turn from aqua blue to deep purple to psychedelic pink. My lips shone from my face and glowed in the dark. And then I discovered why it was Shabbos lipstick. It did not wear off, rub off or wash off. It was still there when I took my children out to play in the afternoon. My Israeli neighbor kept staring at my lips and I knew she was wondering if this was a sign of illness or some new American thing she should be imitating. I knew I really looked ridiculous when my husband asked if I'd been eating a strawberry or cherry popsicle when he came home from kollel.
I wrote my sister and expressed my appreciation to her for always shopping for me and for the lovely clothes she sent. I didn't mention the Shabbos lipstick.